In 1887, Queen Liliʻuokalani was confirmed as the rightful successor to the throne held by her brother, King Kalakaua. After the untimely death of King Kalakaua in 1891, Liliʻuokalani found herself thrust into the esteemed role as Queen and Head of State of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Nonetheless, with such great power came an even greater weight of responsibility, and the newly delegated Queen immediately found herself faced with several pre-existing challenges within the Kingdom.
As a byproduct of the 1887 Constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, also known as the Bayonet Constitution of 1887, Government ministers insisted that Queen Liliʻuokalani sign an oath to uphold the constitution forced upon by her brother a few years prior. However, under this constitution, Liliʻuokalani wielded very little power – mainly due to her repeated struggle with legislature regarding the formation of her Cabinet. As she discussed in Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, “It will be noticed that the constitution forced upon by brother at that date made the sovereign inferior to the cabinet.” She went on to say that, “this session of the legislature, instead of giving attention to the measures required for the good of the country, devoted its energies to the making and unmaking of cabinets.” Such struggles with legislature carried on for several months until the eventual overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy headed by Sanford Dole on January 17th, 1893. However, an issue arose in regards to the extent of such an overthrow. It was argued that Queen Liliʻuokalani, despite being supposedly overthrown as monarch, maintained her status as Queen well after January 17th, 1893 because the Kingdom continued to exist. Such is evident in a letter from RW Irwin, the Hawaiian consul to Japan, to M. Munemitsu, Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, on January 18th, 1893, the day after the overthrow, when the Hawaiian Kingdom formally recognized Japan as an independent and sovereign country; similar to how Hawaii received formal diplomatic recognition as an independent nation from Great Britain and France in 1843. More so, as detailed in Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, in December of 1893 (11 months after the overthrow), Mr. Albert F. Willis, a representative sent by President Cleveland, asserted that Liliʻuokalani was still being recognized by the United States as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands. From a legal standpoint, the Kingdom still existed post-overthrow due to the annexation of Hawaii to the United States through joint resolution and not a treaty. Since the Hawaiian Kingdom became a member of the Family of Nations in 1843 through formal recognition and were therefore subject to international law, the only legal path for the independent state of the Hawaiian Kingdom to be completely dissolved was through an agreed upon legal treaty and not through a joint resolution passed by the United States government. Therefore, in a sense, Queen Liliʻuokalani remained the Queen of the Hawaiian Kingdom until her death in 1917 despite the overthrow of the Kingdom in 1893.
Kingdom or no Kingdom, it was clear that Queen Liliʻuokalani was thrust into considerably arduous circumstances after the death of her brother. Nevertheless, Queen Liliʻuokalani remained steadfast and fully embraced the pivotal role she held in Hawaiian history. The path that she fought and forged for her people, the Hawaiian people, has stood the test of time – once a Queen, always a Queen.